Years ago at a women’s conference, Carolyn Heilbrun, an author, feminist, and mentor to many, told the audience that it was her sixtieth birthday, and that she was celebrating. “I no longer have to hold in my stomach,” she declared. She explained that women over sixty are invisible to the world at large, and so she had no reason to look her best.
Feminists talk about “The Male Gaze,” which is unsolicited, lascivious attention from men. Think about walking down the street past a construction site and trying to ignore the nasty comments and kissing noises coming from the construction workers. That’s the male gaze. No one enjoys that kind of attention. So “women of a certain age” are freed up to walk by any construction site without eliciting comments. Breathe easy, ladies!
That brings up the question of what kind of attention is desirable. Men are correct to assume that women dress for their admiration, but I think that women dress more often in ways that catch the attention of other women. I think about a fashion that is very popular right now and that I personally love: big, loose, flowing dresses. I could fit at least two other people inside the dresses I wear, and I don’t think I have ever had a compliment from a man on an outfit like that, but women go crazy over them. Women will walk across a room or the field at a tailgate market to tell me how much they love my baggy dress.
Along with becoming invisible, we fade as we age. An older woman made a comment to me yesterday. “I’ve noticed that all the color I used to have has gone away.” I started coloring my hair years ago not because it was turning grey, but because it was fading. It went from being a rich chestnut color to being the dull brown of a dead mouse. My skin tone, too, has dulled, and my lip color has faded completely. Sometimes when we are in the car going some place, Ron will ask me to apply some lipstick because I look like death (even though he doesn’t say that!)
So as we march towards the end of our lives, we physically fade and disappear a little bit every day until we are gone. I fight that tide with crazy, colorful clothes and wild hair, but there is only so much one can do. Sometimes I get sad about that. I don’t want to be invisible, and I don’t want to fade and disappear. I forget that we are more than our physical appearance.
So imagine my joy last night when I opened Facebook and found a message from Taylor Welton. Taylor was my student at Country Day long ago. He has to be around fifty by now. I haven’t seen him in a very long time. There was a stream of conversation on his page inspired by some comments his son had made to him about taking better care of himself. Taylor wrote a comment about the nature of his son’s concern: Taylor is not ill, but he is just overweight. He wrote a beautiful, heartfelt note about his son’s kind concern, but at the end, he added a postscript addressed to me! He asked that if I were reading his remarks, he hoped I would excuse any typos or grammatical errors. He said, “Blame those on the other English teachers, Stephanie Felder Wilder. You were great!”
I was stunned! What a joy that someone I haven’t seen in years even remembers who I am, let alone that I was his teacher or even more, that I was “great!”
Taylor hasn’t seen me in forever, and has no idea that I am faded and older and don’t hold in my stomach. And he doesn’t care! What he remembers about me has nothing to do with my physical appearance, but with a sense of my interest in him, about how I saw him as a unique individual. How I was positive and encouraging to him, and how I wanted him to succeed. I feel certain that all teachers share these same qualities, but I was blessed with the ability to let students know that these things were true about me.
I feel so lucky that I had the opportunity for so many years to interact with young people and to let them know that I thought they were special. People ask me all the time if I think I made a difference for those boys in juvie, and I tell them I don’t know. If helping them turn their lives around so they stay out of prison is the kind of difference they are talking about, then the answer is definitely no. But if I was able to let those boys know that I cared about them and wished them the very best, then I made a kind of difference that means something.